2010-09-06 16:51:17Diaspora of scientists and engineers


So many times I've read skeptical comments prefaced by remarks to the effect of "I'm an engineer and I don't believe in anthropogenic global warming because it's all theoretical..." Some of these folks even refer to backgrounds in aerospace. Is this a recent and possibly uniquely American phenomenon?

I ran across this little snippet in a NASA history narrative today:

"The classical education Frank Toscelli received in Italy, in the region where Roman legions defended the empire two millennia before, was an education rare [125] among American engineers. It had evolved from the Renaissance ideal of liberal learning, a process which cultivated all aspects of the human intellect, physical attributes, and creative sensibilities. "In my time," he remembers, high school students studied philosophy, Latin, Greek, two modern languages, and ancient and modern history. "We had to study Italian literature, European literature; we read Shakespeare" and "took courses in translation." Electives were unheard of: a liberal learning and a full science curriculum "provided that background which would permit" students "to reason, synthesize, to analyze a problem, and then," with such tools, to become an engineer. The Renaissance text for the worthy life submerged the harsh distinction perpetuated by Plutarch between men who work with their minds and men who work with their hands, men who understand nature and men who manipulate nature for practical ends. Through the slow and intermittent deterioration of legal class distinctions in Europe, the nature of one's work would persist as a more subtle means of announcing one's standing in the world.

For Toscelli engineering represented not the subordinate alternative to science imagined by Archimedes, but the culmination of scientific understanding in a sequential evolution of mental capacity. "There is not really much of a difference between" scientists and engineers. "If you want to be involved, if you have the background of math and physics, then you can be either one." The business of education, his own experience had taught him, is to "provide the foundation" on which you "build yourself." One can become an expert in an exotic field like materials outgassing in space, but only after one has become well grounded in the basic sciences and mathematics. He is disturbed by the impatience of the engineering he sees around him, the haste to calculate without fully understanding what is being calculated.

Frank Toscelli, with his catholic education, his "love of learning," and his conviction that problems must be fully understood before they can be solved, stands out among his peers. Few things unite American engineers trained in the 1940s and 1950s so much as the narrowly technical focus of their education. 2 Time and again NASA's Apollo era engineers confess to having tried to avoid curricula that required grappling with literature, or philosophy, or history. A narrow technical curriculum, already pressured by the rapid growth of sheer technical information to be absorbed, became separated from the study of the natural and physical sciences as well. Thus the relationship of science to engineering would be burdened by institutional-and inevitably sociological-demarcations having no necessary relationship to what actually occurred when a handful of engineers puzzled out the ways to achieve a smoother airframe or a more efficient aircraft engine. Absent the catholicity of a traditional European or liberal arts education, attempts to unite science (broadly conceived) with engineering would become as much a matter of rhetorical contrivance as of substance.3 "

Thought-provoking. Toscelli's remarks resonate for me; I'm a firm believe that higher education in the United States has become too focused on "results" to the possible exclusion of forming well-rounded citizens. 

2010-09-06 16:58:13

Not to suggest that all engineers are Philistines, not by any means. 
2010-09-07 03:20:50Differences between scientists and engineers?


The differences illustrated in Toscelli's story seem more relevant to a comparison of eras, rather than of disciplines.

Even Richard Feynman, who was pretty well-rounded in a spiky kind of way (drummer, painter, womanizer), took no particular interest in non-scientific education when he was a student. I do not believe he read much that I would consider serious literature, and he thought philosophy was hogwash.


2010-09-07 03:52:58


The bulk of that chapter from the NASA site explores the tensions between engineers and scientists within NASA. A lot of the folks quoted therein offer the self-conscious and healthy perspective of being situated somewhere in a continuum between "pure" research and practical application of formulas and material properties, having found their best place in the scheme of things. There is all the same a conspicuous undercurrent of resentment among the engineering-oriented personnel at NASA, if the writeup is at all representative. That simmering anger is a curious feature for an organization that after all is substantially dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the natural world.  

What's also striking is how limited opportunities for promotion are among both engineers and scientists at NASA. This seems reflected in the greater world including both government and private industry. The real mark of achievement is the seemingly twisted requirement to largely abandon one's discipline, at least in detailed practice, instead join "management." 

Though I've read some of Feynman's lectures as well some biographical material on him I didn't realize Feynman was contemptuous of philosophy. I wonder if his attitude would be refined as we go deeper into cosmology and neuroscience? To my mind a lot of philosophy has consisted of stabbing around in the dark, necessarily so,  but as we've learned more of the nature both of the universe and how our wetware functions the better philosophers have been keeping track, throwing away a lot of old speculation and integrating scientific findings from other domains into their own increasingly disciplined discipline. If the LHC is any indication, the increasingly steep slope of experimentation may yet find physicists and cosmologists in the same boat philosophers have long occupied, forced to live in a fog of irresolvable speculation. How ironic if true. 

2010-09-07 04:45:54


- The distinction between engineering and scientific staff: I think what you describe at NASA is likely to be common with other scientific organizations, like SLAC, CERN, etc. I think the issue is that the scientists are focused on "what the institution is about", and the engineering staff are focused on what is considered essentially a high-class service function.

- Promotion = management:  Yes that's true in industry. It's also true in academia: If you're motivated by salary, you either have to be a superstar (which means you find a way to bring research $ into the university) or you climb the academic ladder by taking on administrative responsibility. There are a few supersuperstars, who can command a high salary because the university thinks it's such a feather in the cap to have them around; but we are talking Nobel Laureates here.

- Feynman thought philosophy was crap: I doubt he would have changed his mind on the basis of cosmological and neuroscientific advances, because those are not advances coming out of philosophy. He indicated that the proof that philosophers had no contribution to make to science, despite their best efforts, is that they could never give any useful clue as to how to progress in science. He agreed that, if ever the progress in science were to cease, the philosophers would close in, and you wouldn't be able to beat them back with surprising new information. He wasn't looking forward to that day.

He also thought any equivalence of spirituality/mysticism with science was crap, as well.


2010-09-07 05:25:50


Feynman's perspective on philosophy strikes me as oddly myopic, possibly even impoverished. 

For instance, engineers can generally explain in a few words the practical objectives of their activities, cosmologists generally can't, leaving cosmologists as an excellent subject for study by philosophers.

For that matter cosmology's purpose might be characterized as a specialized area of philosophy, involving the application of physics to better understanding our reason for being. Viewed that way, physics becomes subordinate to philosophy. 

So much for barracks-room philosophizing. In my case I dropped my only philosophy course the instant the instructor told us we'd be more confused after hearing his lectures than we were before. At my age at the time I had confusion in surfeit. I was just thankful the man blurted out his confession prior to the drop deadline. 

2010-09-07 06:25:07

Well, Feynman had plenty of ideas of his own, so he wouldn't worry about what he might be missing from the philosophy department.
2010-09-13 06:16:32
Paul D


John has upgraded me, so this seems like a good place to start comments in this forum, especially as I have a degree in engineering and was a realtime software engineer (making electro-mechanical machines do stuff) for about 13 years.

Interestingly the university I attended for that degree called the engineering faculty 'applied science'.

I have to say I am often saddened by many engineers that I have come across and who have contrarian opinions about climate science. Then again, I guess I only notice the ones that are contrarian.

Did I remain an engineer?

Nope (although I don't think you ever stop being an engineer once started), I got fed up and went to art college, worked in electronic media for a bit, then took up teaching.
Some engineers are pretty nerdy (or seem to be in the 'autistic' spectrum), I think that can apply to any of us though.

On the bright side, here in the UK we seem to have quite a few engineers developing renewable energy, especially many marine energy projects. So despite some silly engineers, there are probably just as many that see the potential in renewable energy and have their heads screwed on.

Remember though that engineers often work in a commercial environment where results have to be profitable, that means doing calculations, getting something working, tested and produced in a reasonable time. There is no time to ponder about the quantum physics, or whether gravity is going to have a big effect. If someone has already done the science, then an engineer just needs the basics, some tables to read off some final numbers that can be fed into a produce-able product. Making something happen and work is the goal. It's a nice earner.

Then if someone comes along and says, your engineering career is damaging the planet, you need to retrain and design wind turbines or battery powered cars. Then you have a fight on your hands.